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Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel – stinking dystopia

March 21, 2021 26 comments

Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel (1943) Original French title: Ravage.

Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel is on the list of books teachers in collège (middle-school) can use in French class. In my opinion, it needs to come with a truckload of explanations not to lead the students astray.

Ashes, Ashes is a dystopia written in 1943, during the Occupation. The book is composed of four parts: The New Times, The Fall of Cities, The Trail of Ashes and The Patriarch. For this reader it went from fun, to déjà-vu, to boring and to distasteful.

We’re in Paris, in 2052. François Deschamps comes to town after a stay with his parents in Provence. (Barjavel was from Nyons, in Provence). He’s waiting for the results of an exam to work in agricultural engineering and he’s looking forward to meeting Blanche, his childhood sweetheart. When he was away, Blanche has been recruited to be a new singer on a famous TV channel and is about to start a new life. She knows that François won’t approve but she wants to have fun and enjoy her life.

In 2052, people travel on high-speed trains, live in skyscrapers, have AC, can’t walk more than a few meters and eat industrially grown food. It’s always fun to read old dystopian books and see how people imagined the future.

Barjavel imagines apartments in skyscrapers with big screens on the walls with TV shows. Some things are spot on – People can “facetime”— and some things show how difficult it is to think out of the box and imagine technologies or services that don’t exist yet.

For example, when François is on the train, Barjavel imagines that, to read at night, you can adapt a screen on your book, put on earbuds and call for a service where the book is read to you. He doesn’t imagine e-books with backlit screen but an armload of readers over the phone, reading you the book of your choice in your language.

People don’t do anything by themselves. Dead relatives are conserved in apartments as if they were in a wax museum and people live under the scrutiny of their elders. Art is controlled by state run schools and only official artists are allowed to sell their work. Everybody lives in towns, the countryside has been left behind, except in some areas in Provence where a few families people kept farming like in the old times. And François and Blanche come from these families.

We’re in a society shaped by technology and François is very critical and would rather have people going back to the land. His attitude towards Blanche rubbed me the wrong way but I kept thinking that it was other times. I didn’t think Barjavel was very ironic about the ancestors’ watching their offspring. I kept thinking that it was creepy and that your parents could be real bastards you’d be happy not to see ever again. This started to feel a bit too Travail, Famille, Patrie for my tastes.

Then the power is out and everything falls apart. The heat is intense (climate change!), people start loitering, fighting and killing to survive. It’s the Fall of Cities. Without electricity, everything collapses very quickly. Lifts don’t work, planes drop from the sky, dead ancestors thaw, communications are cut and nobody knows how to do anything by hand. All we see is violence, devastation, cholera and fires destroying this modern civilization. François gets Blanch under his arm, gathers a group of people and prepares to leave Paris. This part is probably a reminder of the 1940 exodus.

François and his group leave Paris as fast as they can and start walking south to find shelter in Provence. This third part, The Trail of Ashes, is their journey to safety. We follow the group of people during their travels to Provence, through a hostile environment. The country is so dry that it’s burning everywhere and water gets scarce. I thought this part was a little too long, we got his drift from the start. Brother will turn on brother, nature quicky becomes hostile. I still didn’t like François Deschamps and his patriarchal attitude.

And then came the last part and epilogue, a mere fifteen pages of stinking garbage. The group of people have arrived in Provence and started to cultivate the fields, to provide for themselves. So far, so good. Follows the description of the new civilization built by François, the Patriarch.

They are all peasants and live off the land. A system is organized to maintain peace between communities. Villages mustn’t have more than five hundred families living in the same place and a man can’t own more land than the surface he’s able to patrol in one long summer day.

Polygamy is the rule and ugly girls are grateful for it because they couldn’t get a husband otherwise. Blanche accepted it gracefully because men had to plant as many seeds as possible to repopulate the world. François remarries at an ancient age to a very young girl to have more offspring. He’s valued as a patriarch:

Autant que sa grande sagesse, et la longue et claire vie que Dieu lui a accordée, ce qui a valu au patriarche le respect des populations, c’est que parmi les deux cent vingt-huit enfants nées de ses femmes respectives, il n’a eu qu’une fille. Encore lui est-elle venue alors qu’il avait dépassé cent ans. A cette miraculeuse abondance de mâles, les paysans simples ont reconnu la faveur octroyée par le Ciel à une race de maîtres et s’en sont réjouis.

More than his great wisdom and this long and clear life that God granted him, the patriarch won the respect of the population because among his deux hundred and twenty eight children born to his respective wives, he had only one girl. And she was born when he was more than a hundred years old. The simple peasants saw in this miraculous abundance of males, the blessing of Heavens to a race of males and rejoiced in it.

Paul, married to François’s only daughter named Blanche will replace him when he dies. Of course, Paul is blond. So, a blond guy married to a woman named White will be the next patriarch and rule France. I think that this detail is significant in 1943. (I checked, only 10% of French people are blond.)

Technology is forbidden because François is against it. Books are banned and burnt as soon as someone finds one. Books are evil. That was the last sentence that broke this reader’s back. 

Writing this billet, I reread the passages and tried to find a second meaning, a veiled criticism of this new world. The only trace of it is when a young man comes to François, proudly showing off a steam machine, built to help with field work and alleviate the workers’ burden. Barjavel seems to concede that progress is inevitable and that humanity won’t stand for too long to live at the Stone Age. François promptly destroys the machine as evil too. Apart from this tiny detail, nothing.

I didn’t expect Ashes, Ashes to reek of Petain’s ideology. One reads books by Céline with their eyes open. In my mind, Barjavel was the author of La Nuit des Temps (1968), a wonderful love story I loved as a teenager and of the Chemins de Katmandou. (1969) I never expected him to be this reactionary. Heck, I don’t expect dystopian fiction to be reactionary. I expect dystopian books to show what will happen to humanity when humanism is thrown away. And more than that, I don’t expect the rebel of the dystopian book to be the founder of a new civilization that is way worse than the one they wanted gone.

I’d like to think I got it all wrong. According to Wikipedia, Ashes, Ashes was first published during the war in the collaborationist and antisemitic weekly newspaper, Je suis partout. Knowing that, it’s hard to think that Barjavel wasn’t seriously on board with the thesis developed in the fourth part of his novel. Or he really perjured himself writing Ashes, Ashes. If I missed something, I’ll be happy to discuss it in the comments. 

See why this book needs to be thoroughly discussed in class when young minds read it? 

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